Helldiver Recovered in California
Though 6,299 Helldivers were manufactured by U.S. and Canadian factories, the Curtiss SB2C is today one of the rarest of all major U.S. aircraft types to see combat during World War II. Only the Vought Vindicator and Douglas Devastator (none survive), Martin Mariner (one) and P-61 Black Widow and P-63 Kingcobra (four each) exceed the much-maligned “Sonofabitch Second Class” in rarity: Six Helldivers survive, and the Commemorative Air Force’s ship is the sole flyable example.
A seventh, however, will be joining the mini-fleet as soon as lots of mud is washed away and some serious rebuilding is done. A latemodel SB2C-4, recovered from a reservoir near San Diego, will be restored and displayed at Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum.
The -4 was arguably the best of the Helldivers, the result of nearly 97,000 engineering changes that Curtiss was forced to make during the lifetime of the design. Earlier variants were poorly constructed, riddled with engineering faults, underpowered, had some severe structural weaknesses and were characterized by what one British test pilot termed “appalling handling.” They were in nearly every way inferior to the airplane they were intended to replace, the Douglas SBD Dauntless (which had its own designator-derived nickname,“Slow But Deadly”). The hulking but relatively fast SB2C-4 won grudging respect, however, and did well as a carrier-based dive bomber over the Marianas, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa.
The Helldiver lifted from the water of the Lower Otay Reservoir on August 20 had been ditched by Ensign E.D. Frazer after an engine failure during a training flight from the deck of the carrier Wasp, cruising off the California coast. Frazer and his rear-seater, Joseph Metz, climbed out of the still-floating bomber, swam ashore and casually hitchhiked back to their land base, Brown Field, in San Diego. Neither Frazer nor Metz are still alive, but Frazer’s son, Richard, was present when his late father’s airplane came out of the water. He looks forward to visiting Pensacola with his grandchildren, to show them the airplane their great-granddad flew.
60-Year-Old Airmail Surfaces
A horrific airliner crash that most Americans never heard about is still so notorious in Europe that two popular French dramatic films, made in 2001 and 2004, were partially based on it. In 1950 Malabar Princess, an Air India Lockheed L-749 Constellation flying through heavy snow, centerpunched Mont Blanc so near the summit that half the airplane ended up on one slope, in Italy, and the other half on the other side, in France. Not only were all 40 passengers and eight crew killed on impact, one of Europe’s most famous Alpine guides was lost in an avalanche during a fruitless rescue mission. The Constellation was en route from Cairo to refuel at Geneva, Switzerland—one leg of a journey from Bombay to London. The passengers were all merchant seamen being flown from India to crew a new ship in England.
Over the six decades since that disaster, Mont Blanc’s glaciers occasionally spat out parts of the Constellation as rivers of ice moved in mysterious ways. A mountain lodge manager awoke one morning to find an entire main gear leg, complete with two wheels and one tire, sitting outside his snack bar. That lodge, the Chalet du Glacier, today has a small museum of Malabar Princess artifacts. Numerous other pieces of the Constellation (including half of a Wright R-3350 engine) have been amassed by a local mountain climber, Daniel Roche, who is currently trying to sell them to collectors, having been unable to interest local organizations in establishing a museum specifically for their display.
Yet it wasn’t until this past June that the most eerie of all the Connie’s remains literally surfaced: A large canvas mailbag filled with letters and cards posted 60 years ago in Bombay was found by a Scottish university student, Freya Cowan, during a University of Dundee climbing expedition to study glacier patterns and global-warming clues. The mailbag had been carried some 8,000 feet down from the crash site by a glacier and had popped to the surface near a large boulder behind which a modest Cowan fortuitously chose to answer a call of nature.
The university has been restoring, recording and preserving the letters and in a few cases has been able to finally send them on to descendants of the intended recipients. All the letters in the bag had U.S. addresses.
A strange postscript: In 1966 a Boeing 707 letting down for an approach to Geneva crashed into the summit of Mont Blanc only yards from the wreckage of Malabar Princess. Its airline? Air India. The only survivors—briefly—of that crash were some of the 200 Indian lab monkeys being carried in the cargo hold, which rescuers found wandering in the snow.
National Aviation Heritage Invitational Awards
In conjunction with the 47th Annual National Championship Air Races at Stead Field in Reno, Nev., the National Aviation Heritage Invitational was held on September 19. The competition awarded trophies in five categories, with top honors being the presentation of the Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Trophy.
More than 30 beautifully restored aircraft were on hand to compete, ranging from a 1959 Piper PA-24-250, owned by Nevadan Russell Taylor, to a 1970 Douglas TA-4J from Pacific Aero Ventures of Arizona. Airplanes were judged on the technical merits of their restoration, with the goal being to restore each plane as close to its factory delivery specifications as possible.
A theme surfaced in the antiques category, with the arrival of three aircraft designed when mail, rather than passengers, was the payload of choice: Addison Pemberton’s 1928 Boeing 40C1, North Pole Pass Airways’ 1929 Hamilton Metalplane in Northwest Airways markings and Jim Slattery’s 1929 Waco JYM, also in North west Airways markings. Among the an tiques, the 1929 Hamilton Metalplane received the Orville and Wilbur Wright Trophy, which was collected by Chuck Wentworth. Pemberton’s Boeing 40C1 received the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s People’s Choice Award.
Bill Scott, of Reno, took home the Paul E. Garber Trophy for his restoration of a classic 1945 Grumman G44A. His four-seat amphibian was resplendent in an overall red with black trim paint scheme that glistened in the hot sun.
John O’Connor from Downers Grove, Ill., received the Henry “Hap” Arnold Trophy for the restoration of a 1945 Goodyear FG-1D Corsair. This bent-wing bird was recovered from El Salvador in the mid-1970s by Frank Arrafut, who spent nearly 30 years painstakingly rebuilding it. To complete the restoration, the plane was moved to John Lane’s Airpower Unlimited in Jerome, Idaho, with O’Connor acquiring it as it neared completion.
The Howard Hughes Trophy for large aircraft went to a 1934 Douglas DC-2, flown by Clay Lacy and restored by Pete Regina. Reno was this transport’s final appearance, as it was slated to be flown to Seattle’s Museum of Flight to join its collection of commercial aircraft.
The Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Trophy was presented to William Allmon of Las Vegas for the restoration of his 1945 North American P-51D, a former NACA test aircraft. Re stored by John Muzala’s Pacific Fighters of Idaho Falls, Idaho, it wore NACA 127 markings and was flown with models mounted on a wing cuff to obtain transonic wind-flow data for comparison with results obtained in wind tunnels. Allmon’s Mustang wing mounted both original and reproduction models. For more info, visit heritagetrophy.org.
-Nicholas A. Veronico
From Tadpole to Amphibian
Grumman engineer David Thurston served as the lead designer on the F9F Panther and development-and-test supervisor for the F11F Tiger, and he played a major role in bringing the F6F Hellcat to production. But his longest-lived design was a small single-engine, general aviation land/water plane, the Lake Amphibian. Amphibians are rare and expensive birds, since their hulls are too vulnerable for bush flying, where floatplanes rule and there’s usually so much water around that nobody needs runway capability anyway, so they remain sport planes for well-off amateurs. (When Lakes were last sold new, in the mid-2000s, a top-of-the-line Turbo Seafury listed for $749,000.)
Thurston’s amphibian, which he initially began to design as an ultimately canceled postwar Grumman project, the G-65 Tadpole, was for nearly 60 years the only game in town. It stayed in production from 1948 until 2006, though some say a single unit was built in 2007. Only the Beech Bonanza, among production lightplanes, boasts a longer continuous lifespan.
The Lake Amphibian, the last of which had four seats and 270 hp, was originally called the Colonial Skimmer, a two- or three-seat, 150-hp airplane. By the time the Tadpole morphed into the Skimmer, Thurston was sharing the design work, and the company they’d founded, with friend Herbert Lindblad, a former Republic Aviation engineer.
This past September the very first Skimmer, the number-one prototype (with barely 115 hp), was flown to San – ford, Maine—site of the former Lake factory—so that Dave Thurston, now 92, could be reunited with the airplane that started it all. Owner John Staber had spent 11 years restoring the Colonial Skimmer XC-1, which he’d bought as a basket of parts without knowing it was the historic prototype. So the aircraft that greeted Thurston in September was literally better than new, since prototypes are built as tools to fly, test and tweak, while restorations are done with an eye toward cosmetic perfection.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.